Café Poca Cosa is what's known as a 'destination' restaurant, which means that, thanks to plenty of national press, people travel to downtown Tucson just to eat there.
But we had two very different dining experiences, which made me wonder about the place.
Part of the charm of Café Poca Cosa is how the menu is presented. Servers bring a chalkboard listing the day's dishes to the table. Then the server explains each dish in detail. There are usually several beef dishes, a couple of poultry dishes, a vegetarian plate and a seafood choice. And there's also the Plato Poca Cosa, where diners throw caution to the wind and let the chef determine their meal (you'll get three items). All meals are served with fresh fruit and mixed greens as well as churro beans, white rice flecked with corn and warm corn tortillas.
At lunch, our server couldn't be bothered to bring the chalkboard menu to the table once we said we'd been there before. She gave a cursory rundown of the items, saying something like "there are some chicken dishes, some beef dishes."
But at dinner, our vivacious young server went all out. She explained the differences in the three beef dishes that night; she pointed out which one was spiciest; and she laughed when I wrinkled my nose at the thought of a green corn tamale being topped with a carrot sauce. By time she was done, we knew our options in detail.
At lunch, we were tucked into a corner in the raised area between the entrance and the private dining room. At dinner, we got a window seat in the stylish main dining room and were able get a better look at the dark red walls, the religious art and the sparkly lights in the curvy bar area.
At lunch, a somewhat harried busser brought chips and salsa to the table. The chips tasted like something out of a bag and the salsa was a bit too thick. The chips and salsa didn't improve much at dinner, but the busser actually greeted us and asked how we were.
At both meals we ordered the Plato Poca Cosa.
One lunch plate ($15) held pollo pipian verde with pistachios, pastel elote con pintos and the asada crema con aguacate (avocado). The other had pollo con crema en ancho, pastel elote con carne and pescado con lentil a Mexicanas (all spellings are from the chalkboard, readers—there's no other menu).
At dinner, ($25) one plate consisted of carne asada, pollo con crema e serrrano and the pastel elote topped with apples. The other plate had machaca, carne bravo and the aforementioned elote con zanahoria (carrot).
After plunking down our plates, the lunch server told us what was on each plate without further explanation and barely a smile.
The food came to the table on the wrong side of lukewarm, which I'm sure affected the flavors. We had waited a considerable time, so I'm assuming that our meal sat waiting in the kitchen, which would explain the temperature and texture (for instance, the fruit was soggy) of everything on the plates.
We didn't get any beans and the white rice was as cool as the rest of the food.
The entrées in general were uninspiring. The pipian, one of the restaurant's signature dishes, was bland and tough. The beef got lost under all the lettuce and veggies on the plate. My chicken crema was dressed in what tasted like turkey gravy. The fish, which had been cooked in foil, had no zing and was barely warm. The elotes were interchangeable. Which had beef? Which had beans?
But at dinner, everything was different. We had ordered two house margaritas ($6) and were not quite halfway through them when our food arrived. While it wasn't piping hot, the temperature was a marked improvement from lunch. Our server even bade us a hearty "Enjoy."
I was pleasantly surprised by both the tamales. The carrot topping had a sweet/savory flavor and the masa had been cooked nicely. The apples on the other tamale were toothsome and had a hint of cinnamon. Not as sweet as apple pie, but a nice complement to the masa.
The carne asada and carne bravo were similar; the asada had a nice, lingering grill taste and the carne bravo was full of the flavors of Mexico. Both were tender and juicy.
The machaca was a nice rendition of this classic dish. All the ingredients came together in perfect balance.
This time the pollo crema was tender and had come together nicely with the soft, creamy sauce.
Even the salad was better. And this time we got beans, which worked well placed in a warm tortilla with a bit of one of the entrées.
To end our meal, we picked the Plato Poca Cosa dessert ($12). It included blueberry cheesecake, chocolate mousse and an orange/almond cupcake.
The cheesecake was our least favorite. While the tiny rectangle had the proper consistency, it was missing any tang. Perhaps that was because of the blueberries that had been mixed in. A riot of fresh, mixed fruit topped it off. The mousse had a crumbly crust and a passel of airy whipped cream on top. It was properly chocolate-y and delicious. And the cupcake was outstanding. There was a smack of orange, more than a hint of almond and a buttery moistness, and it was topped with a sugary icing.
Café Poca Cosa has been a star in Tucson's dining constellation for many years. Perhaps time has dimmed the shine a bit. But with all the new restaurants downtown, Café Poca Cosa can't afford to rest on its laurels.